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Ruwan fears sequel to October coup as Rupavahini deadlock continues

The controversy surrounding the change of management of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) took a turn for the dramatic yesterday as the Minister formerly in charge of the corporation suggested that his President may be laying the groundwork for a sequel to the October 2018 coup with the surprise takeover.

Speaking to reporters yesterday afternoon, Non-Cabinet Minister of Mass Media Ruwan Wijewardene said that President Maithripala Sirisena’s seemingly shocking decision Monday evening to hand over the SLRC management to the Ministry of Defence with an important election just months away raises serious questions.

“This was the first time in the country’s history that a state media organistion was taken under the purview of the Defence Ministry – something not even wartime Presidents had done. We have to wonder why it was taken over this way, in the present context with an election on the way,” said Wijewardene.

“A question arises as to whether it was done with election campaigning in mind or perhaps even as a first step to another conspiracy similar to the constitutional coup of October last year,” he added.

Condemning the move, the Minister said it was a blow to democracy as well as media freedom. Private broadcasters, too, would now have to be vigilant as spectrum licensing is governed by the SLRC Act, he added.

Despite his fears of another coup in the works, however, Wijewardene expressed hope that Sirisena would reconsider the move, taking into account the gravity of the situation – failing which, he said, he would continue to protest.

“The President has all the power to take over any institution; but I’m against this particular takeover as a matter of principle, as I feel it goes against democracy and media freedom,” he said.

Insisting that his opposition to the President’s sudden decision was not a political one, the Minister said his own repeated attempts to replace SLRC Chairperson Inoka Sathyangani – which prompted the Defence Ministry takeover – was motivated purely by a desire to see the loss-making state-run TV station turn a profit.

Apart from “frequent requests” to the Treasury for a total of Rs. 450 million to pay staff salaries, a laundry list of allegations against SLRC top management – as spelt out by the Minister as well as former Working Director and one of Wijewardene’s personal picks for the job Sanjeewa Wijegunawardena – included:

  1. Diminishing ratings, with SLRC now languishing at No. 6 among all TV stations
  2. Annual reports going back to 2014 indicate, according to Wijegunawardena, losses on average of Rs. 200 to 300 million. With a monthly breakeven of Rs. 200 million, and (in 2019) a monthly revenue of Rs. 140 million on average, SLRC has seen losses of Rs. 60 to 80 million a month.
  3. Increased (advertising) revenue during the Cricket World Cup being used to pay SLRC staff salaries. Star Sports, which was owed USD 1.8 million, was given a bank guarantee through the Bank of Ceylon which Wijegunawardena said is in danger of being forfeited.
  4. Rs. 100 million owed to suppliers
  5. Arbitrary procurement, “illegal procedures” followed in media buying

In a letter addressed to Sirisena on Tuesday (11), Wijewardene accused the former of scuttling his attempts to change the fortunes of the SLRC by appointing a more competent chairperson in order to course correct the state broadcaster and turn into a profitable venture.

The President has yet to respond to the letter, and the Minister, it appears, is sticking to his guns.

“I’ve been taking this issue up with the President since I was appointed Minister in February. Based on what I’ve been told by staff and from what I’ve personally observed, SLRC is falling apart. I recommended that Sathyanagani be removed and I presented four proposals, all of which were rejected. Finally, I tried to appoint Kelum Palitha Maheeratne as Chairman, after which the takeover happened,” he said at yesterday’s press briefing.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara on Tuesday charged that neither Maheeratne nor any of Wijewardene’s other recommendations had been presented to the presidential committee tasked with evaluating individuals poised to take charge of state enterprises.

Asked about this, Wijewardene told RepublicNext that all names recommended by him, with the exception of Maheeratne, had in fact been presented to the committee, which he said is now non-functional.

“If you study the gazette, as Minister I have the right to appoint or sack a chairman. The gazette clearly states this, so I’m simply acting according to the law. I haven’t overstepped anything,” he said.

Opinions have been expressed in some quarters that, considering Sathyangani’s was an appointment made by former Media Minister and Wijewardene’s United National Party (UNP) colleague Mangala Samaraweera, the incumbent’s repeated attempts to remove her indicate a tussle between the two Ministers or at the very least indicative of the inner turmoil the party now finds itself in.

Wijewardene denied this, though not without some caution.

“If that’s the case, I would’ve changed the chairman of ITN. That chairperson was also appointed by Minister Samaraweera. I kept her around because she’s doing a good job. Palitha Maheeratne himself was appointed by Samaraweera to the board of ITN. I found out he did a good job at ITN, so I thought he should have the opportunity to restructure Rupavahini.

“I have no issue with people that Minister Samaraweera has appointed, but if they can’t do their job, I think it’s my right to as Minister to look into that and change those people – if there is mismanagement going on in these institutions,” he told RepublicNext.

Rupavahini’s prime time news bulletin last night opined that its former boss had contradicted himself in yesterday’s press briefing. Some of the airtime appeared to be dedicated to President Sirisena and, interestingly, UNP presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa, though it did not seem to be more disproportionate than usual. Equal airtime was also given to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

How the SLRC programming will change over the coming days as the managerial drama continues to unfold remains to be seen.